Archives At Risk Help Desk

This page is maintained by the Archives At Risk Committee and is intended to be a high-level overview of relevant resources for LA as Subject members and friends. Please contact the Committee with any questions about the Help Desk.

For questions about general archives jargon we recommend visiting the Society of American Archivists Dictionary of Archives Terminology. If your need is not addressed here, we also welcome LAAS members to bring their questions to General Membership meetings.















Managing archival collection materials is important, but so is management of the people and organizational structures that keep an archive going. The resources referenced below relate to managing a repository’s organizational structure and strategies.

How do I start an archive?

The Archives At Risk Committee recommends Elizabeth Yakel's Starting an Archives book, available online through Hathi Trust.

How do I decide which priorities my archive should focus on?

American Association for State and Local History's Technical Leaflet 242 offers advice on DIY Strategic Planning for Small Museums. You can download the PDF here:

I feel like our Board is a Board in name only, but lacks authority or purpose. How can we improve our Board operations?

Board Source has a checklist of roles and responsibilities for Boards, as well as a list of recommended must-have documents.



Collections Management is the documentation, preservation, storage, and exhibition of a museum’s collection. In the archives world, the Society of American Archivist defines Archives Management as  “The general oversight of a program to appraise, acquire, arrange and describe, preserve, authenticate, and provide access to permanently valuable records.”

What is a Collection Development policy?

A collection development policy contains guidelines and standards that define what an archive does and doesn’t collect; how an archive selects and acquires (accession) new items; how they can get rid of unwanted items (deaccession); all in relation to the archive’s mission and audience. The Society of American Archivists has examples of Collection Development Policies on the Museum Archives Section page linked here.

What is a Deed of Gift? Why do we need one?

A Deed of Gift is a written agreement that transfers the ownership of an item. The Society of American Archivists’ A Guide to Deeds of Gift gives a great breakdown of what a deed of gift is and how to use it when accepting donated materials to your archive. SAA's Crisis Collecting Assistance Team (CCAT) Anonymous Donations Accession Policy is for donations left at memorial sites, but it may also be helpful for creating policies for donations received anonymously. CCAT's Documenting in Times of Crisis: A Resource Kit also provides an example of templates for Deeds of Gift and other forms.

How about digital donations?

SAA's Crisis Collecting Assistance Team (CCAT)'s Digital Submissions Terms and Conditions provides helpful language examples for something donors could sign related to digitally submitted donations.

How do I take care of my collections?


How should I organize my archive?

Creating Family Archives: A Step-by-Step Guide to Saving Your Memories for Future Generations by Margot Note is a fantastic place to start learning how to approach organizing your collections. It provides steps on how to survey, handle, store, process, and digitize an archival collection in a simple and easy to understand way. 

Connecting to Collections Care has an informative webinar titled “Archival Processing – Principles and Practical Strategies” on the basics of processing a collection. There’s also a helpful handout for additional resources and links to processing guides.

For those interested in collaborations between community archives and archivists, you may want to explore hosting a participatory archiving event. The Road Map for Participatory Archiving includes more information on the concept and a thorough guide on how to set up your own event.

What is a finding aid, how do I create one, and where can I upload it for researchers to find?

A finding aid is a guide to an archival collection. DACS is a descriptive standard detailing what kind of information to include in a finding aid. RecordEXPRESS is a free tool for creating finding aid files that can be uploaded to the Online Archive of California (OAC). OAC is a central place for California-based institutions to upload and display their finding aids.

Is there software I can use to catalogue my collections? How do I know which one is right for my archive?

There are a lot of options out there and the best fit for your archive will depend on many factors. The Digital Library Federation has a helpful wiki that provides information and examples for a wide variety of Content Management Systems (CMS) for archives, libraries, and museums.



In general, any long term storage environment for preservation should be cool, dry, clean and stable. Needs vary but audio and visual media should be stored at a slightly lower temperature and lower relative humidity than books and paper collections.

What is the best way to store the AV media in my collections?

NEDCC offers advice on storing and handling a variety of formats such as VHS, audiocassettes, motion picture film, optical media and microforms.

I don’t know what kind of format this is - how can I identify it and figure out how to care for it?

This guide from the University of Illinois has descriptions of many formats along with photos to aid in identification. It also describes how items might deteriorate, risks in handling, storage and playback and ideal storage climate environment.

What is this vinegar smell in my film can and how do I get rid of it?

Vinegar syndrome is a sign that motion picture film is decaying. The smell is from the degradation of the plastic base. Further decay can manifest as shrinkage, embrittlement, and buckling of the gelatin emulsion. Cold storage can slow the process..

Should I digitize my old media?

The biggest danger to media is formats obsolescence and material degradation. If you have a lot of recordings but can’t play them back, are they still worthwhile to keep? There are questions to answer before beginning any digitization project such as defining how the the files be stored, presented, and accessed and defining who the end user is. 

Should I digitize my old media in house or through a vendor?

There are many facets to consider when deciding to digitize in-house or through a vendor. Staffing, budget, scale of project, level of control and nature of the material are all facets to be investigated.

Where can I send my old media to be digitized?




Similar to preservation of paper, digital preservation means ensuring the authenticity, integrity and accessibility of digital files over time. This applies to both digitized papers or photos, and born digital files. Caring for digital files requires as much effort and planning as caring for physical collections, but the tools vary depending on your needs and situation.

The Digital Preservation Coalition has a handbook to help you get started.

Digital files last for a long time so what is there to worry about?

Digital files are subject to loss, degradation and human error just as physical items are. File formats become obsolete or an application becomes unsupported and no longer opens the file. Users can change or delete files. Hard discs or other storage media fail. Natural disasters happen.

I have heard that you are supposed to keep more than one copy of a digital file but what does this mean?

Preservation of digital files begins with redundancy.  Have multiple independent copies of digital material (i.e. on more than one computer) and store these in different geographic locations, one offline if possible (i.e. an external hard drive).

How do I ensure the integrity of my files over time?

Digital files can degrade over time. Fixity is a property of the file, meaning it is unchanged from what it was at an earlier time. The fixity of files can be established and monitored through the use of checksums, or a “digital fingerprint” which is a string of numbers and letters generated using a mathematical algorithm. You can use online MD5 checksum tools such as this one to generate checksums and any difference over time means an error or loss in the file.

What are the best file formats for long term digital storage?

Preservation masters will be of higher quality than access copies. For example, JPG is a file format used for access and TIFF for preservation. PDF format is common. The Digital Preservation Coalition has a handbook page that describes file formats and standards.



Preservation means protecting materials from physical and chemical harm and degradation. This can include protecting collections from fire, water, light, pollutants, humidity, pests, and people.

What steps should I take to protect my book and paper collections from deterioration?

The Preservation Self Assessment Program  (PSAP) website describes how to identify different types of bound and unbound papers, inks, bindings, and printing processes and provides an assessment of risk. It also lists resources for more information.

Other than books and paper, I have objects made of various materials in my collection. How do I care for them?     

  • The National Park Service also publishes Conserve O Grams, a series of leaflets with similar types of information. 
  • One book with a good overview (although published in 1992) is Caring for Your Collections, edited by Arthur W Schultz.

How do I find a conservator?

The American Institute for Conservation provides a Find a Conservator database that can be searched by specialty and geographic location. If you need to verify the credentials of a conservator, you can also search by name.



What is digitization?

American Library Association’s definition 

Am I ready to digitize?

Questions to Ask Before Starting a Digitization Project, South Central Regional Library Council 

How do I choose what to digitize?

What is metadata?

Are there standards for digitizing?

Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials, Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines Initiative 

How do I share my digitized collection with the public?

University of California Santa Cruz, Center for Digital Scholarship - Digital Exhibit tools 

Examples include Omeka and Scalar.



Having a disaster response plan in place can help mitigate impact when a natural or physical emergency occurs. These resources can help you in preparedness planning before disaster strikes and response and recovery when an emergency happens.

Emergency preparedness (beforehand):

What can I do to plan for a disaster/emergency situation?

Take steps to identify, assess, and prioritize risks to collections in order to put in place the necessary resources (including insurance) to reduce, spread, or transfer the risks and minimize the impact of unfortunate events. Engaging in disaster planning encourages you to think through your particular facilities and location risks and identify most at-risk or valuable collections. The Library of Congress offers an overview of basic concepts here

Connecting to Collections informative webinars can also guide you through the process.

What is a disaster plan?

A disaster plan is a resource specific to an institution with multiple components that collates all key information in a single place. This information can include details of your building/facility and its construction and systems, contact info and roles and responsibilities for personnel who make up your disaster team, collection salvage priorities, insurance information, and supplies and services available to you. 

Are there disaster planning templates I can use to make one for my organization?

Multiple templates for plans can be found online. Here are two versions.

  • California Preservation Program offers document templates for easy fill in and printing of information. There is a full template as well as a foldable pocket-sized plan identifying key information. 
  • dPlan offers a free, online fill-in-the-blank template that can be saved and printed as a text file. 

Disaster response/recovery (during/after):

An earthquake hit and my collections are compromised, what should I do first?

Ensuring health and human safety is the first step in disaster response. Make sure the area is safe before entering to salvage collection. If you need help and advice in salvaging your collections, the California Preservation Program offers a 24 hr toll free number for emergency assistance.  1.888.905.7737 

My pipes leaked and caused flooding - how do I salvage wet books? Paper and manuscripts? Media? Objects?

With water damage, air drying is one way of mitigating damage to items but this takes space and time. It’s also important to prevent mold growth. Freezing items buys you time when you don’t have the time and space to air dry all the damaged material at once.

The American Institute of Conservators offers some how-to video demonstrations of salvaging items from a variety of hazards. 

Who can I contract to help my organization recover from a disaster/emergency?

Commercial disaster recovery services are available in emergency situations and can provide freeze drying services, data recovery, or other types of large scale assistance. Organizations can set up a relationship with a vendor before disaster strikes. 

Who can I contact if I need financial help to aid in recovery?

The National Disaster Recovery Fund for Archives is a grant program established post-Katrina to aid any repository that holds archival records or special collections. Grant money is used specifically for the direct recovery of damaged or at-risk archival materials. 



Since finance is the foundation for building and sustaining any archival program, managing budgets and locating appropriate funding resources is essential.

How can I keep track of money?

The downloadable Cash Flow Template spreadsheet from Propel Nonprofits includes a good starter list of the types of financial information you may want to track.

Is there anything I need to do to accept donations of money?

In order to legally accept tax exempt donations, you must be an approved 501(c)3 non-profit organization. If you accept donations and don't have 501(c)3 status, those donations are considered income and must be claimed on tax returns. For more on becoming a 501(c)3, or other options to consider, SEE LEGAL AND COPYRIGHT SECTION.

 Where can I find grant funding?

  •  is a free database of grants offered by various government agencies

How do I write a grant proposal?

  • Most organizations awarding grants include guidelines, and some provide examples. For instance the National Archives and Records Administration provides a sample application.
  • There are many books on the subject including Writing Grant Proposals That Win, by Deborah Ward. You may also find courses offered on the internet. A free self-paced course, Introduction to Proposal Writing, is available online.

What other strategies can I use to seek financial support?

A resource that provides a thoughtful overview of the issues is Architecting Sustainable Futures: Exploring Funding Models in Community Based Archives



The following resources provide information about common legal matters that archival repositories might face, including copyright concerns. These resources are intended as informational only and should not be considered legal advice.

How do I determine whether a resource is in the public domain?

See Cornell University Library’s Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States for an up-to-date summary of copyright terms and the public domain for unpublished and published works.

A researcher has requested permission to publish a document in our collections.  Can I grant them permission to publish the document?  Does the fact that I physically have the item mean that I “own” it?

See Copyright and Unpublished Material: An Introduction for Users of Archives and Manuscript Collections published by the Society of American ArchivistsThis informational brochure answers many basic questions, including information about the transfer of rights from donors to repositories.

What copyright laws and guidelines should I be aware of if I wish to digitize collection materials and make them available online?

See Copyright and Cultural Institutions: Guidelines for Digitization for U.S. Libraries, Archives, and Museums by Peter Hirtle, Emily Hudson, and Andrew Kenyon, which was written to assist understanding and compliance with copyright law, particularly in relation to digitized materials.

How do I legally make my archive a non-profit organization?

CalNonprofits has a step-by-step guide and resources on where to start.

Becoming a registered nonprofit is not right for my archives right now. What are other options?

You may want to consider a fiscal sponsorship arrangement. For more on what that entails see the National Council of Nonprofits' page on Fiscal Sponsorship for Nonprofits.

When someone donates something to my archive, that means it belongs to me, right?

Donated property should come to your organization with a Deed of Gift to legally transfer ownership of the physical object. For information on Deeds of Gift, see the Society of American Archivists' guide to Deeds of Gift. Donated items may physically belong to you, but the intellectual content might still be under copyright. Although the Society of American Archivists' guide to Copyright and Unpublished Material is aimed at archival users, it provides helpful perspectives on copyright as an archival issue.

How do I find a lawyer, or someone to mediate a dispute?

Arts organizations can hire the services of California Lawyers for the Arts.



Oral histories allow people to share their stories in their own words, with their own voices. They are a way of conducting historical research by recording interviews with personal experience of historically significant events with the goal of adding to the historical record. These are some resources that will guide you through the process of creating an oral history.

Where can I find a good overview about creating an oral history?

Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Oral History’s Oral History Interviewing Guide by Marjorie Hunt takes you from start to finish, from finding your interviewee to how to use oral histories for other projects. 

What kinds of questions should I ask in an oral history interview?

UCLA Family History Sample Outline and Questions offers questions that can apply to not only family members, but to local community members as well.

The Minnesota Historical Society’s Oral History Project Guidelines has sample questions and also explains how to write your own dynamic questions.

Where can I find a good overview about creating an oral history?

Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Oral History's Oral History Interviewing Guide by Marjorie Hunt takes you from start to finish, from finding your interviewee, to tips and techniques for conducting an oral history interview, to how to use oral histories for other projects.

What paperwork do I need for an oral history?

-Oral History and Copyright

California Revealed has a permissions guidelines document.

-Example Permissions Form:

Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Oral History’s Interview Release Form 

-Example Biographical Information Form:

Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Oral History’s Interview Information Form 

SAA's Crisis Collecting Assistance Team (CCAT)'s Resource Kit provides additional examples of forms to use when conducting oral histories.


Advocacy and Community Building and both forms of outreach. Advocacy is defined by the Society of American Archivists as “activities in which archivists and their allies engage to gain support for archival records, the institutions that manage these records, archivists, and the archives profession.”  Advocacy can be either internally focused toward the leadership within an organization, or externally focused on users and the wider community. 

Community building is a set of activities and outreach around a specific shared location or interest. E.g. Los Angeles; Los Angeles history. Engagement with your community might mean: peer collections and institutions, researchers and interested patrons, or the community your collections might be in and of. 

How can I advocate for my archives or where can I begin?

See the Society of American Archivists' Issues & Advocacy Section Tools and Toolkits for examples of advocacy efforts created by various organizations for advocating for your collections both within your organization and via outreach to stakeholders and the public.

How do I establish contacts within my community and build a network of supporters for fundraising campaigns and/or other initiatives?

See the American Library Association Advocacy Library for a useful and comprehensive collection of advocacy resources on building support for projects, programs, and other organizational initiatives.

What are some of the communication strategies I can employ to better communicate with stakeholders and potential supporters?

See the International Council on Archives/Section of Professional Associations’ Brochure on Advocacy for some golden rules of advocacy, including the elevator pitch and media attention, as well as how to advocate towards politicians and other stakeholders. Also see American Library Association's Every Voice Makes a Difference for some basic tips and examples on articulating the value of your work, your collections, and the services your organization provides.

How can I build a better relationship with my community?

The Wisconsin South Central Library System has a number of outreach ideas to try. 

How can I access the impact of my organization on our community?

UCLA’s affective impact toolkit provides guidelines.

What are some examples of libraries/archives/cultural heritage organizations-led community building activities?

University of North Carolina’s Wilson Library Special Collections page Creating and Growing Community-Based Memory Collections gives guidance on creating a community memory project. 

How do I use social media as a community building and outreach tool?

Public Library Association's Public Libraries Online article "To Engage or Not to Engage? Social Media in Public Libraries" includes perspective on this question.



Archival documents may contain private information about individuals. Archival repositories may also retain private information about those that use their archival collections, and those that donate collections. The following is a basic overview of common privacy scenarios and examples on how to deal with them, but it should not be considered legal advice.

What kinds of private information can be contained in the archives?

Some common and easy to recognize personally identifiable information (PII) that may be found in archives are Social Security numbers of living individuals, bank account numbers, or credit card information. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Guide to Protecting the Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is a very detailed but informational guide to PII. In rare cases you may also encounter health information, which is regulated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability (HIPAA).

What is HIPAA?

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) regulates the use of protected health information, or information about the health status, provision of health care, or payment for health care that can be linked to a specific individual. Archivists and Librarians in the History of the Health Sciences maintain a resource page with more information on HIPAA. The Duke University Medical Center Archives also provides a perspective in their Demystifying HIPAA blog post.

I want to keep an archival document, but it contains a Social Security number for a living person, what can I do?

You can redact the personally identifiable information (PII) and keep the rest of the document in your archives. Indiana University has a guide on how to redact PII in a number of formats.

What is donor privacy?

Although some donors may want their donations public, others may not. Either way, the contact information of the donor should be considered private information. The National Women's History Museum's Donor Privacy Policy is an example of a longer donor privacy policy and contains a list of what they consider confidential donor information. The New York Historical Society Museum and Library's Donor Privacy Policy is an example of a short and to the point statement about how they handle donor information.

What is archival user privacy?

The American Library Association Library Core Values page on Privacy and Confidentiality gives examples and explains the importance of user privacy.